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Sylvia Townsend Warner Biography

(1893–1978), The Espalier, Collected Poems, Lolly Willows, Mr Fortune's Maggot, The True Heart

short appeared story novel

British novelist and poet, born in Harrow where her father was a schoolmaster at Harrow School. Her first published work was a volume of poems, The Espalier (1925), and she continued to write verse throughout her life; Collected Poems appeared in 1982. She is best known as a writer of prose fiction. Her first novel, Lolly Willows (1926), the story of a witch who makes an uneasy pact with the devil, achieved great success for its whimsical mood, eliciting comparisons with the fictions of David Garnett and T. F. Powys. Warner's next two novels were Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927), a fable of the encounter of Christianity with paganism in the South Seas, with marked homoerotic undertones; and The True Heart (1929), a reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in a Victorian setting. The underlying seriousness of her vision was scarcely perceived until the publication of Summer Will Show (1936), set in 1848 against the backdrop of the two revolutions in Paris. The story of the relationship of two women, an aristocratic Englishwoman and her husband's Jewish mistress, the novel reaches its climax in the conversion of the former to communism and reflects Warner's own growing belief in Marxist theory and ideology. Her political commitment also inspired After the Death of Don Juan (1938), which the author intended as an allegory of the rise of fascism in Franco's Spain. Appropriating the Molière play and the Mozart opera for its own ends, the novel is a celebration of the tragic beauty of Spain and a testament to the eternal struggle of the peasantry against exploitation by ruthless landlords. Less explicitly motivated by politics, but equally concerned with history, were The Corner that Held Them (1948), set entirely in a fourteenth-century Benedictine convent, and The Flint Anchor (1954), the story of a merchant and his family in nineteenth-century Yorkshire, inspired in part by Warner's family history. Warner was also a highly skilled and acclaimed writer of short stories, most of which appeared in The New Yorker. In her last years she wrote a short series of narratives about elves, collected in the volume Kingdoms of Elfin (1977). A representative selection of her short fiction appeared as Selected Stories in 1988. Sylvia Townsend Warner's Letters (1982) are a testament to both her talent and her gift for friendship, which illuminates her work. She is the subject of a biography by Claire Harman (1989), who also edited her diaries (1994).

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